News

HD service changing how we listen to radio

Aaron Barnhart
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

I've been trying to figure out if this HD Radio thing is for real or not.

About a year ago my old car radio died, and Best Buy sold me an Insignia replacement with an HD Radio chip for $40 extra. Because I knew that that one-time cost would be it, and I could listen to HD for free, I decided it was worth a splurge.

HD Radio is the service started up by the nation's radio broadcasters to counter the challenge of satellite radio. I find that explaining it to people is harder than just getting them into my car and turning on my stereo.

The HD Radio Web site explains it this way: "Basically, digital radio works the same as conventional radio. There's a signal on one end and a receiver on the other. But there are a few key differences. Instead of sending out one analog signal, stations send out a bundled signal - both analog and digital. Both broadcasts are free, with no subscription fee. To hear the digital broadcast, all you need is an HD Radio receiver."

If a radio station is broadcasting in digital, my tuner will detect it and switch to playing the digital station.

At that point the sound usually gets noticeably brighter. The phrase "HD Radio" is actually just a marketing creation designed to get consumers thinking it's like HDTV, which is technically not true but for all practical purposes an apt comparison.

Anyway, I can either enjoy the enhanced sound of the existing station (which I rate as somewhere between FM and CD quality), or, if I look at the display and see "HD1," that's my cue that there is a second, or possibly even third, digital station on that same frequency. Then I can push the HD button on my radio and check out those extra stations.

The question is, of course, will HD Radio be around in five years? Unlike digital TV, there is no government mandate for radio to go all-digital and probably never will be. On the other hand, how much longer will subscription satellite radio be around? Stock of Sirius XM is trading near zero. Wall Street analysts think the company's debt load will kill it. If that happens, how will that affect HD Radio? Especially when people learn they can get it in their cars for less than what they paid for three months of Sirius?


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